21 January 2022 by Grace Gannon

Stepson successful in claim against stepfather’s estate

Higgins v Morgan and others [2021] EWHC 2846 (Ch)

This case is a rare example of a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (‘the 1975 Act’) that reaches trial.

1975 Act claims are costly and take a long time and are therefore usually resolved through other forms of dispute resolution, such as mediation.

Background

Stewart Higgins (‘Stewart’) died without a valid Will in 2017 and his entire estate passed to distant cousins.

Under the intestacy rules (which apply when someone dies without a valid Will), stepchildren are not entitled to receive any inheritance.

Stewart’s stepson, Barrie Higgins (‘Barrie’), issued a claim under the 1975 Act for a share in Stewart’s estate.

Barrie claimed that Stewart had acted in the role of a parent and Barrie was ‘treated as a child of the family’, which is one of the categories of people who can make a claim under the 1975 Act.

Barrie further argued that the estate falling to distant cousins was against Stewart’s wishes, as Stewart had promised Barrie on multiple occasions that he would make a Will in his favour. Despite the assurances, no Will was ever found.

Barrie was in a poor financial situation and brought a 1975 Act claim on the basis that the intestacy rules did not make reasonable financial provision for him.

To prove ‘reasonable financial provision’, strong evidence is usually needed to show that an applicant is not financially stable on their own accord and would be dependent upon the inheritance.

Barrie sought provision which would be sufficient to meet his income deficit for a period of 10 years, pay his debts and provide him with a contingency fund.

The distant cousins argued that Barrie had not demonstrated a need for maintenance, or that his need was less than he was claiming.

Judgment at trial

Barrie had to prove that he and Stewart’s relationship was ‘something more’ than just the relationship of stepparent and adult stepchild.

The court looked at the nature of the relationship between Barrie and Stewart, in terms of their closeness, in comparison to that of Stewart and the distant cousins.

The Judge was satisfied that there was a close relationship between Barrie and Stewart, more than that of the distant cousins.

Further, Stewart was already financially providing for Barrie at the time of death, which was evidenced by Stewart’s promise to give Barrie £10,000 for his wife’s business.

This resulted in ‘a strong moral claim’, which amounted to the ‘something more’ requirement.

Furthermore, Stewart was under no obligation to provide for distant cousins under the 1975 Act.

The final judgment was on the basis that the estate was valued at £195,000.

The Judge awarded Barrie in excess of £50,000 from the estate.

Success fee

Stewart’s solicitors were acting under a ‘no win, no fee’ agreement.

Ordinarily, success fees under these agreements cannot be claimed from the losing party.

However, recent 1975 Act cases have allowed part of the success fee to form part of the maintenance claim and the Judge in this case did the same.

This is another ‘win’ for applicants in 1975 Act cases.

Limitation

Claims under the 1975 Act must be issued at Court within 6 months of the date of the Grant of Probate and therefore must be made very promptly.

If you believe that you may have a possible claim under the 1975 Act or need to defend a 1975 Act claim, please contact our Disputed Wills and Trusts team.

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